Come and see!

Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 15th January 2017, at St Peter & St Paul, and St Michael and All Angels

Isaiah 49:1-7
John1:29-42

 ‘What are you looking for?’  They said to him ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’  He said to them, ‘Come and see’.

 Last Sunday, we heard again that story wonderfully rich in colour and imagery of the wise men, people travelling from afar, impelled to discover and explore what God was revealing to them.  Here were people, ready to question in search of deepening their wisdom, travelling with minds and hearts open to new possibilities; people filled with expectation; people travelling ever onward, undaunted when things don’t go exactly as they had imagined.  Remember? Their expectation was that a child born to be king would be found in Jerusalem.  Willing to have their world view challenged, they go onwards to Bethlehem.  In this relative backwater, and in the ordinariness, the particularities of family life, they recognise the extraordinary, the wonder and glory of God revealed in the vulnerability of a small child; they recognise all that they have been travelling towards, seeking, and so are compelled to worship and to offer their gifts.  Wise to the manipulations of worldly power, they return home via another road.  They had travelled a long and dangerous journey, had found what they were seeking and were changed by their experience – the return journey would never be the same as their outward.  Long before, something had prompted them to ‘come and see’; they took an enormous risk and were rewarded by the revelation of God himself.

This morning, we hear the story of other men drawn to ‘come and see’.  The story opens in Bethany with John the Baptist surrounded by people, some of them religious folk sent from Jerusalem.  They had been questioning him, trying to pin him down as to who exactly he was.  John gives them clues that they struggle to pick up.  These men are not on their own journey, seeking understanding, but men sent to get straight answers to the questions of others.  I sense frustration in John’s voice when he says:  Look, this is what I have been doing, but standing among you there is someone who is so much greater than me and you don’t even know him!

The next day, out among the people once more, John suddenly sees Jesus coming towards him and announces to the crowd: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  He goes on to tell them all that he has himself experienced and concludes: “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”  I find myself wondering what range of emotions and feelings were experienced by that crowd drawn to listen to John for their many and varied reasons – curiosity certainly; wonder perhaps; incredulity, utter disbelief – and I suspect fear.  For all too often we are driven to fear rather than wonder when faced with something, someone we don’t fully understand.

Later still, John  is standing with two of his disciples and he says to them “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  As soon as the two heard this, they left John and followed Jesus.  John had no illusions about the nature of his calling and its limitations.  After all, later on in John’s Gospel we hear him say ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’.  John the Baptist understood that he could only lead people so far on their journey seeking God and then let them go to be guided by another.  God’s call to serve is costly.

The declaration of John will lead to an intimate conversation and the lives of two men will be utterly changed – Andrew and his unnamed companion – are the first to leave John and follow Jesus.  They are taking a risk, walking away from what is known and familiar towards that which is unknown yet inviting, compelling.  And so they walk, and in time Jesus turns, sees the two following him and asks ‘What are you looking for’ or as older translations record it ‘What do you seek’.  Here perhaps the older translation is more helpful – I may look (as I regularly seem to do) for car keys that I know I left on the kitchen worktop! – but I seek meaning in my experiences of life and faith.  Jesus looks at these two men and asks – ‘What are you seeking’.

I wonder – What would our response be if Jesus were to come in through those doors right now, look around at each of us and ask – ‘What are you looking for – what are you seeking’.  What would our response be – as individuals and as a community?   Are we seeking a safe life where everything is familiar and unchanging, or something more dynamic where our views and understandings of God and His world are challenged? In these early days of a new year, it bears considerable reflection on our part.

Caught on the hop, Andrew and his companion adopt the age-old trick of deflecting the question with a question of their own – ‘Where are you staying?’  Jesus answers – ‘Come and see’, an invitation to abide.  And so the two follow, and remain in Jesus company for the rest of the day.  Something happens to Andrew during this time – like the Wise Men he glimpses the extraordinary in the ordinariness of this particular human being drawing him in to a deeper relationship even when he doesn’t fully understand.  But the experience impels him to go in search of his brother, Simon and tells him ‘We have found the Messiah!’ drawing Simon to ‘come and see’ for himself.  God reveals and Andrew responds – just as the prophets and the Wise Men before him had done.

Jesus looked at Simon, called him by his name and added ‘you are to be called Peter.  All too soon, Jesus will look at him again – this time in the courtyard of the High Priest, and Peter will break down in tears.  For now Jesus calls him by his name, knows him as he is, but tells him things will change, he will become Peter, the Rock.

At our baptism, Jesus calls each one of us by name; He will continue to call, continue to reveal something of himself amidst the ordinary everyday of our lives; continue to invite us to come and see; should we choose to accept that invitation, we too will be changed, gradually becoming the person He calls us to be.

At an inner city church in the Elephant and Castle, South London, the Church Warden arrived early in the morning to open up only to find the side door swinging open. There had been robberies in the past although since the candlesticks were taken some time ago, there is little of value left to pinch.  So, it was with caution that the Church Warden entered – and saw was all the candles alight – main altar, side altar, about 20 or so on the votive candle stand, the candle in front of Our Lady – in fact there wasn’t a candle that hadn’t be lit.  And there, a few pews from the front, a solitary man sat, still.  He hadn’t broken in to rob or to damage; he had broken in to pray and it appeared had been there half the night.  He and the Warden chatted, he apologised for the door and then he left.  Later in the day, as people gathered for Evening Prayer, it was agreed that there was much to admire in a man who had gone to such remarkable lengths simply to get in to a church to pray.  Call the police?? Certainly not.  Oh that more people were so keen to come to church, to pray.  Someone asked whether he was ‘OK’.  What was meant by that was not defined, but the priest took the person to be asking if he was a bit unstable. The priest deflected the question but then asked if any of us are truly’ OK’, and was that not the reason we seek the source of amazing grace and love who continues to call us, inviting us to come and see, to experience healing grace.

Life is full of opportunities to show that love which is the mark of Christ in the ordinary particularities of life – if we dare to follow and grasp the opportunities.  A man on his own near a church in the South of London felt an overwhelming need to connect with the God who was calling him in the only way he knew how – to go inside a church and to pray.  We may question the wisdom or the appropriateness of his action but the priest, who by the way is Giles Fraser, one time Canon of St. Pauls Cathedral, goes on to say he totally gets why someone might break into a church to find what he is seeking.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating that people should break in to churches.  But when things do happen that challenge our world view, then we can choose how to respond. Sitting in the quiet of that South London church at night surrounded by the light of candles, and the companionship of God, perhaps the man saw something as if for the first time and God knows how that will impact upon his life, and what road he may travel.  Clearly the people gathering for Evening Prayer, who also experienced a different way of seeing, did what the Wise Men and Andrew and Simon Peter did – they responded, taking a different path.

In a few moments, we will be encouraged once more to come and see, glimpse God’s glory in the simple everyday things of bread and wine, simple things transformed through the power of love.  As we open our hands to receive, let us dare to pray that God will grant us a new vision of what it means to respond to the invitation – Come and See – not just within these walls but into our town and beyond.

An adventure awaits with the potential to change the world!  AMEN

Be born in us today

Sermon by Rev David Walsh at Midnight Eucharist, 24th December 2016

Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14.

Well we’re not going to forget 2016 in a hurry.

As we look forward to 2017 and beyond we know that the world is changing.  But we don’t know, can’t be sure, what the changes will look like.  Nobody knows.

Our society and our world are clearly deeply divided.

Can we hold together despite our differences?  Can we live together despite our differences?  These are key questions for our society, for our nation, even for our community here in Kettering.

One disturbing feature looking back at 2016 has been the growing lack of respect, of genuine conversation, between people who disagree.

Stable societies find ways for people who disagree nevertheless to live alongside each other.    Ways of agreeing to disagree.  Once we lose this, we have a serious problem.

As we look forward into 2017 and beyond, in a world that is clearly changing, the fear is of change so unpredictable that few understand what is really happening and even fewer work out how best to respond.

‘History doesn’t repeat itself.  But it does rhyme.’ as Mark Twain reputedly said.

As we try to understand our own times, our hope has to be that the apparent parallels between our own decade and the 1930s turn out to be false and that events fail to take the ugly turn they did back then.

In the meantime, it’s not surprising if people are wary and anxious about the future.

Our first reading this evening from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is set in a culture, in a city, not anticipating the threat of calamity, but on the other side of it, after it’s already happened.

The disaster has actually struck.  And in the circumstances the message is a little jarring:

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Jerusalem.’

It’s hard for us to get a handle on just how inappropriate these words must have sounded.  Because Jerusalem was indeed in ruins, destroyed in 587 BC by the Babylonians, modern-day Iraq.

What might open our eyes is the fate of another great ancient city, just 400 miles north of Jerusalem.  A city even more ancient than Jerusalem itself.

One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, a city whose wealth once made it the second city of the Ottoman Empire.  A city mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.   But now lying in ruins.

I’m talking about Aleppo.

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Jerusalem.’

Perhaps one way to imagine the original impact of these words is to recall the images on our TV screens in recent weeks.   And imagine anyone saying

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Aleppo.’

This is the desperate backdrop to some of the most inspiring literature ever written, the prophecies of Isaiah, a few lines of which we heard in our first reading.  These writings are one of the glories of Hebrew literature and speak to us today, 2,500 years later with such freshness, with such creative and vivid use of imagery and metaphor that the words at times simply leap off the page.  And what is their message?  One of hope.  One of liberation and transformation.  Of new life.

The lesson appears to be that if it’s visions of hope we want, it’s best not to go looking in comfortable, complacent times.  Our most profound and transforming visions appear to emerge in times of uncertainty, of anxiety and even distress.

The visionary writings written when Jerusalem lay ruined were inspired by another group of prophecies written 200 years earlier, prophecies which appear towards the beginning of the Book of Isaiah.

Those earlier prophecies also foresaw a new start, one very specifically related to a birth:

‘The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’

Hopes for the future are here crystallised in the hope surrounding a birth.  That’s not so unusual.  But these hopes eventually come to fruition in the birth of Christ.

This need not be the end of the story.   The hope that something new might be born and be a sign of God’s presence is one we can continue to nurture and cherish.

As 2016 draws to a close, many of us are understandably anxious about an uncertain future.  But uncertain times, times of transition and change, can be moments of opportunity as well as threat.

Perhaps, in a time of crisis, a new poetic vision will transform our expectations about the world

Perhaps something new is waiting to be born in our world. If so, how will we recognise it?  And how will we respond?

Do we believe that something new could be born here in Kettering?  And that we could be part of it?

Do we believe something new could be born in this church and this parish?

Do we believe something new could be born in our hearts?

That which is born is new and unpredictable.  But it is also familiar.  It draws on what is already there, isn’t something imposed from outside, something alien.  And yet it is new.

If something new is to be born in Kettering, the raw material, the seeds,  are almost certainly already here.

If something new is to be born in this church, in this parish, for it to be genuine and authentic, it needs to grow out of what is already here.

If something new is to be born in our lives, the change, the miracle, needs to happen within us.

The prayer at the heart of our Christmas celebrations was summed up in the last carol we sang:

O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.

‘Be born in us today’.

Or, to borrow the language of our gospel reading, we pray that in some new way the Word might take flesh and live among us.   That we might see glory and that we might know God’s grace and truth amongst us.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance

Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 4th December 2016, at SM&AA and Ss P&P

Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

Advent is a time when we find ourselves waiting – hopefully, expectantly; a time of anticipation as we prepare both to celebrate the coming of Christ at his birth while also looking ahead to time when he will come again to judge the world, heralding God’s Kingdom in all its fullness. That patient anticipation, waiting watchfully is counter cultural in a world of frenzied activity that only seems to increase at this time of year. It is counter cultural in a world that exerts commercial pressure not to wait but to have everything, do everything – NOW. ‘Get what you want today with fast track same day delivery’; mobile phones and computers ‘ping’ demanding our attention NOW! Deliberately switch both off or go for a walk leaving them behind closed doors and you find yourself challenged as to why you did not instantly respond to your caller when in all likelihood there was nothing that justified such an urgent response!

But there is nothing passive or finger drumming about this kind of waiting that Advent calls us to share. In her book ‘The Meaning is in the Waiting’, Paula Gooder likens it to a pregnant kind of waiting, ‘profoundly creative involving slow growth to new life. This kind of waiting may appear passive externally but internally consists of never ending action……that knits together new life’.

Through Advent we find ourselves in the company of others who have faithfully watched and waited long before us, among them the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist and of course Mary. This morning, we hear the words of two of them, men whose lives were separated by at least 400 years – Isaiah and John the Baptist.

Isaiah’s words are spoken to a people living in deeply troubled times with the constant threat of war and oppression. Isaiah’s words enable his hearers to dare to hope as they glimpse a new vision, a future when a king will come from the same root as David bringing forth a new order; a person upon whom the Spirit of the Lord will rest. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God is invariably given for a specific task. So Isaiah tells us that the promised king will come with a particular mission – and the emphasis is on just judgement with a particular concern for the poor.

Isaiah’s vision would have us understand that the just rule of God looks forward to the restoration of paradise when the world and all creation will be so suffused with grace and peace that even the natural world is transformed and the primeval way of life restored. So through Isaiah’s vision, we are enabled to glimpse the world as God yearns for it to be.

And as we glimpse, we are reminded of God’s call to each of us to play our part – for by virtue of our baptism, God’s spirit rests upon us to bring good news to the poor, release to those held captive and freedom to the oppressed. Isaiah’s vision reminds us to look around, to look out in to our world, for if we really look, we can see flashes of that end time in our world now: we glimpse it when Palestinian and Israeli come together to make music; we glimpse it in the kindness of strangers; we glimpse it in the generosity of spirit that gives to people who have little or nothing; we glimpse it in the wonder and beauty of the natural world.

Perhaps like me you have been enthralled by David Attenborough’s latest series, Planet Earth 2. The photography is stunning and I am in awe of all those who go to untold and often very uncomfortable lengths to enable us to glimpse the wonders and miracles of this world that we inhabit. Week by week, the programme has also posed a challenge, spelling out in no uncertain terms the cost of the impact of the human species on the natural world and the degree to which we are rapidly destroying our environment and the ecological balance upon which we all ultimately depend. We are, it seems, a long way from Isaiah’s vision of creation as God longs for it to be, a peaceable kingdom where all may flourish.

Professor Stephen Hawking, writing in the Guardian on Friday, was reflecting on the growing inequality across our world and how he believed it was the driver underlying the recent political changes both in our own country and in the USA. he concluded by saying that
“….the really concerning aspect of this is that now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together. We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans…..right now we only have one planer and we need to work together to protect it.

To do that we need to break down, not build up, barriers within and between nations……We are going to have to learn to share far more than at present.

We can do this, I am an enormous optimist for my species; but it will require the elites from London to Harvard, from Cambridge to Hollywood to elarn the lessons of the past. To learn above all a measure of humility.”

Meanwhile, we are all on a journey travelling between the imperfect here and now to the perfect yet to come. Travelling in hopeful anticipation, with a sense of longing in our hearts.

As we travel, we hear once more the second of those two voices mentioned earlier – John the Baptist, the one sent by God to witness to and prepare the people for the coming of Jesus. John, who always pointed away from himself to someone far greater. His style of waiting was certainly not passive; his waiting was disruptive, abrasive, unsettling, so unsettling that it would bring about his own death. But it was essential in preparing the way for Jesus ministry.

We find John out in the wilderness, down at the edge of the River Jordan. He is drawing great crowds, people from Jerusalem, across Judea and all the region along the Jordan, people longing to hear a message of hope in troubled times. Perhaps some were intrigued by this extraordinary man, others drawn by the power of his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’. The Greek word translated into English as ‘repent’ means so much more than simply saying sorry, and living differently. It requires a complete reorientation, a change of direction, starting again, living in a new way, living if you like kingdom lives where faithfulness to God was reflected in relationships rooted in forgiveness, justice, compassion and mercy. And quite shockingly for these people, that reorientation involved recognising that forgiveness for sin could take place not only outside the temple, but outside Jerusalem.

The Pharisees and the Saducees – the respectable and the pious – do not get a warm welcome at the waters edge. “You brood of vipers!” he calls them. Yet even vipers will be transformed in the kingdom of peace. John challenges them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance!” Such fruit cannot grow without a real and deep change of heart. John would not allow them (or indeed us) to rest on their status, their past or their ancestry. Then as now, goodness does not depend on who you have been, or where you have come from. Rather it depends on the choices you make, your relationships and dealings with others, and upon who you are becoming. This new growth is the fruit worthy of repentance.

Advent is a season of hopeful waiting, filled with anticipation. But Advent it is also a season of challenge. John’s words are as much a challenge to us today living in our fragile broken world, as they were to the people 2000 years ago standing near the waters edge. We are challenged to grasp again John’s disruptive spirit of reorientation, to turn and follow a new path, allowing ourselves to be changed, moulded and shaped anew by the Divine love flowing through us and all creation. We are challenged to grasp John’s disruptive spirit and open ourselves to God’s law of love and forgiveness, compassion and justice; opening ourselves to the spirit of fire that it may burn away all that is selfish and destructive, creating space so that new tender shoots will grow and flourish. For only then will we be truly ready when He comes. We dare to venture on this journey of repentance in the knowledge that God is with us, waiting for us, calling us onwards.

The kingdom of heaven that draws near will be filled with peaceable lions, lambs freed from fear and vipers transformed. In the kingdom of God all will feed in abundance, live in peace and we will bear for each other the best fruits of repentance. Let’s dare to dream, as we continue to journey joyfully and lovingly, in faith and hope. Amen

If only we had more faith

Preached by Mrs Kate Bowers on 2nd October 2016 at Ss Peter & Paul

O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Yourself, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

 Watching television coverage of the appalling suffering in Syria leaves me crying out to God as Habakkuk does in our first reading today!

We feel impotent, wondering how the world can stand back and seemingly do nothing, yet with no idea what can be done.

And then there are those people and situations closer to home which make us terribly aware of our own limitations.  A colleague leaving school on Friday evening had been talking about a family in distress and the limitations on our ability to help, said, “We are not Superheroes!”

If only we had more faith!

That is just what the disciples ask for in today’s Gospel reading.

This reading comes from the central section of Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus has ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’.  Much of this section makes for uncomfortable reading set in the midst of conflict with the authorities and expectation of worse to follow.

No wonder the disciples wanted more faith.

And the first readers of Luke’s Gospel were followers who were facing hardship and persecution – they must also have longed for more faith.

Jesus’ reply seems to contain both rebuke and encouragement.

Rebuke – “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

But that is also an encouragement – vast quantities of faith are not what is needed! What is needed is for us to use the faith we have – even if it is less than the size of a mustard seed.

The story Jesus tells about the slaves not expecting to be rewarded for doing what they are there for seems rather harsh! It seems as though Jesus senses that the disciples are looking for faith as something to insulate them from the difficulties of their present situation and the worsening conflict they are expecting and he wants them to know that faith does not work like that – but they do already have enough faith to get on with what they are being asked to do.

I headed the email newsletter this week with the words ‘use it or lose it’.  We have enough faith but faith is there to be used.

G.K. Chesterton once said,

 “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult and left untried.”

St Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is celebrated on Tuesday of the coming week said,

“Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible!”

 This was how Francis himself lived. He remains famous today not because of his own words and actions so much as because his words and actions conformed so closely to those of Jesus.

As a boy Francis dreamed of earning glory in battle.

He got his chance at an early age when he enlisted, along with the other young men of Assisi to fight in a feud against a neighbouring city-state. Assisi lost the battle and Francis was imprisoned for a time. Defeat in battle and serious illness in prison caused Francis to turn away from his visions of glory on the battlefield.

Francis’ path toward God took a series of turns closer and closer to God, rather than an all at once conversion. However, the course of Francis’ life was profoundly changed by at least two formative experiences. On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis saw a beggar outside of St. Peter’s Church.

Francis exchanged clothes with a beggar and then spent the day begging for alms. That experience of being poor shook Francis to the core. Later he confronted his own fears of leprosy by hugging a leper.

Shaped by his experiences with the beggar and the leper, he had a strong identification with the poor. Francis cut himself off from the opulent lifestyle of his father and sought out a radically simple life. By the time of his death, the love of God had compelled Francis to accomplish much toward rebuilding the church. He could look on thousands of lives transformed by his call for repentance and simplicity of life. Yet, Francis of Assisi was simply a man transformed by the love of God and the joy that flowed from a deep understanding of all that God has done for us.

Francis approach to his life of Christian service fits with Jesus words to us in today’s Gospel reading when he tells those who follow him that they are to serve with no thought of reward.

But what exactly is the work of God? In what way are we to serve him? We have the example of Francis, to add to that of Jesus’ own life and ministry. Yet, how can we in our own time and place attempt to live more fully into the Gospel?

First, there is no getting around the fact that the Bible knows nothing of professional clergy serving a congregation. The Bible teaches that all Christians are ministers of the Bible by virtue of their baptism. Then as ministers, each of us has a wide variety of jobs to do in the kingdom of God based on the gifts God has given us. While congregations benefit from the ministry of priests and deacons, the real work of the church happens when the people in the pews live out their faith in their day to day lives. This includes many thankless tasks, showing love and mercy in even small ways and even if no one notices. You know how thankless these tasks are because you have the same issue at home. Do you get thanked every time you do the dishes/empty the dishwasher? Or cut the grass? Or wash the laundry? Or make your bed? Or do your homework? Probably not. But let time pass without doing the dishes, cutting the grass, washing the clothes, making your bed or doing your homework and you are sure to hear about it. These are thankless tasks and you take them on with no thought to getting praise for doing them.

We are not to serve others for the thanks we get. We are to serve others as serving Jesus, because that is the life God calls us to.

It is in doing God’s work that our faith and our love will increase, that we will be transformed and will in turn transform the lives of those around us.

Francis took his mustard seed of faith and used it to trust that he could hug a leper, though he was terribly afraid. In the process, he found the faith to work among lepers. And so, again and again, his steps of faith emboldened Francis to trust God more. It is the same for us. Each step of faith strengthens our trust in God to follow even more boldly.

To come back around to G.K. Chesterton, he advised, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”

That was Francis, living out a love affair with God.

When it is me and you living out the love of God, then Christianity will have been tried and not found wanting, nor will it be a series of thankless tasks.

Walking the life of faith then is not done in search of thanks or praise, but is simply an act of love. Then you and I can join Francis in saying that we are merely servants doing what we were called to do. We call ourselves servants knowing that what we do, we do for love, for the one who knows us fully and loves us more than we could ever ask for or imagine.

God’s honest judgement – then he offers us mercy

Preached by Revd David Walsh on 25th September 2016

Amos 6.1a, 4 – 7, Luke 16.19-end

A vicar friend of mine has a son, who, much to his embarrassment, is constantly getting into trouble at the school attached to my friend’s church. The teachers at the school drip-feed my friend with stories of the latest misdemeanour his son has committed or the completely unacceptable things he has said.

 When this boy was nine, one teacher couldn’t wait to update his father on the latest episode. In an attempt to influence the boy’s behaviour, the nine-year-old had been given a punishment, intended to deter him from even considering such an action again. The nine-year-old just looked at the teacher and said: ‘That’s the stick. Where’s the carrot?’

 When I first saw the readings selected years ago by the Church of England for this Sunday, the Sunday we are inviting people back to church, I realised they weren’t the readings I would have selected for such an occasion. The Bible is full of stories of welcome, embrace and acceptance. Instead today we get ominous warnings. An Old Testament prophet rails against those who bask in luxury whilst around them a society is being ruined. Far from being immune from what is happening to their country, says the prophet, they will be the first to suffer when the nation finally collapses. In our second reading from Luke’s Gospel, agony and torment are pictured as the consequence of decisions taken by a rich man whilst he was alive.

 Exile, agony, torment. I can well imagine you thinking ‘That’s the stick. Where’s the carrot?’

 These stories are of course set in societies very different from ours, a long time ago. For most of my life I’ve found it hard to identify with them. And yet in recent years I’ve found it easier, as our societies have once again become more unequal, as a whole new class has emerged, a new breed of plutocrats, the extraordinarily rich.

 And of course some of these fabulously wealthy people are doing fabulous things with their money. Just this week Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, announced a donation of $3 billion to try to eradicate many diseases by the end of the century. Zuckerberg joins Bill Gates, who has been fighting against malaria for some years now.

 It’s easy to be sceptical about rich people making gestures like this. But for me their actions throw a spotlight even more clearly on the behaviour of the seriously wealthy who don’t even bother pretending they are generous and responsible with their wealth.

 And so these difficult stories from the Bible begin to make more sense to me.  Some of the imagery is troubling. But underlying these stories is an insistence that – despite appearances – justice matters, is built into the very fabric of the universe.

 There is a psalm many of you won’t have heard, but which, as a priest, I say at Morning Prayer several times a year. I used to struggle identifying with the sentiments in the psalm.

And then I found myself living in Kensington at a time of unrivalled affluence, of tax avoidance and then financial meltdown. And suddenly these words from Psalm 73 came alive in a new way:

 ‘I was envious of the proud

I saw the wicked in such prosperity;

For they suffer no pains

and their bodies are sleek and sound

They come to no misfortune like other folk

nor are they plagued as others are

And so the people turn to them

and find in them no fault.

Then thought I to understand this

but it was too hard for me

until I entered the sanctuary of God

and understood the end of the wicked

 How you set them in slippery places

you cast them down to destruction.’

 If this is simply about finding pleasure in the misfortunes of others who had it coming to them, I’m not interested. But if these stories are trying to say that – despite appearances – there is a moral order built into the fabric of the universe and that in the end good will have its day, then I’m intrigued and interested. I would like all that to be true. That’s what faith is. Wanting it to be true. Deciding to behave as if it were true.

 It would be easy and comfortable in the religious life to steer away from the demand for justice. But that can lead to a facile spirituality, self-absorbed, caring little for so much that is wrong in our world. It simply doesn’t take account of the whole of our experience, fails to take on board life’s cruelties.

 It doesn’t reflect the way most of us want to bring up our children. Yes, we want them to be happy, want them to be healthy, want them to succeed in education, in work. But most of us want also for them to nurture their moral compass.

 For many people this is what religion is all about, precisely what religion is all about. And yet this is no more than a starting point. For if life without a moral compass is vacuous, life with nothing but a moral compass is harsh and rigid. Those of us who are Christians follow a man who desired not only justice but also mercy. Justice and mercy.

 Justice and mercy are both necessary aspects of the spiritual life and so of any life well lived. Justice without mercy would be unbearable, a kind of North Korea of the soul, in which life is always a march, never a dance.

 If you want to see judgment without mercy, pick up a tabloid newspaper, where even getting the judgments right in the first place often fails to matter. If you want to see judgment without mercy, think of the judgments we sometimes make about ourselves: our low opinions of ourselves, our habitual expectation of criticism, often taken in at a young age and yet as we grow older surprisingly resilient as an inner voice.

 We are not short of judgment in this world. What God offers us is honest judgment so that we might know who we truly are: a mirror which doesn’t distort.

 And then he offers us mercy.

Living and walking with God is not safe, but it is always good! (SsP&P)

Sermon preached by Canon Lesley McCormack at Ss Peter & Paul on 18th September 2016

Amos 8:4-7; Luke 16:1-13

There is a wonderful scene in C.S. Lewis’s novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” where Lucy, the youngest of the children to go through the back of the wardrobe and enter the magical world of Narnia, meets Mr. Beaver.  In this magical world of talking animals and evil queens, Lucy feels a mixture of wonder and fear after hearing about Aslan, the Great Lion and king of Narnia.  Lucy inquires of Mr. Beaver, “is he quite safe?” to which Mr. Beaver replies with air of indignation “Safe? Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good.”

 Rather like Lucy who wants to know that the ruler of her mystical world of Narnia is safe, we want our God and our faith to be safe and comforting, preferably making no great demands on our time or our treasures.  But that is not the Kingdom of God – God’s Kingdom is not safe in terms on worldly values and norms but it is good.  For God’s kingdom shakes everything up, turns expectations and values upside down and re-creates extending His kingdom in the most expansive and glorious way!

 And if we are in any doubt, listen to Luke’s story this morning, and we quickly realise that Jesus is far from safe, always good and transforms the values and expectations of the world with the values and goodness of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom that will always surprise us with the boundless transforming love and mercy of God.

 Jesus has been travelling around Galilee with his disciples – preaching and teaching about God’s Kingdom and what it means to be builders of that Kingdom.  He has been revealing this Kingdom to those with eyes to see in raising the dead, healing the sick, welcoming sinners and embracing the people who are lost, lonely and unloved, the downtrodden and these whom so many in society regard as  outcast, unworthy.

 And in doing all of this, Jesus has ruffled some feathers, not least those of the pious religious leaders for whom adherence to the strict laws laid down in the Torah was all important.  The laws governed every aspect of individual and community life, and adherence to these laws demonstrated faithfulness to God.  The laws helped them to feel that they could contain God, make him safe.  God, though, isn’t safe, but is always good.  And the manner in which that same Law was interpreted left so many of God’s people feeling alone, unloved and unworthy to approach Him.

So feathers were ruffled because what Jesus was saying posed a direct challenge to the authority of the scribes and Pharisees; the religious scholars and leaders became increasingly irritated by his choice of dining companions and the relationships he developed with people from every walk of life, many of whom were  regarded as unsavoury or unscrupulous characters.  Their fear of this ‘threat’ would ultimately lead Jesus to the cross, but for now, he answers their criticisms through story-telling, Parables.

 This morning’s parable follows immediately after those three parables that David referred to last Sunday, parables about lost-ness.

 The first is the parable of the lost sheep.  A shepherd is looking after his flock of 100 sheep and one wanders off.  He leaves the 99 and searches high and low until he finds the one that is lost.  And when he does so, he rejoices!  Shepherding was a familiar way of life to Jesus listeners, and still is in many places across our world today; listeners then and now would know only too well that any shepherd worth his or her salt would never leave the flock to search for one sheep.  But this shepherd does, leading those with ears to hear to recognise that God’s Kingdom is different and his way contrary to the ways of the world; God is not safe, but is always good and comes looking even when we wander away.

A woman had ten silver coins but one disappears so she lights a lamp and turns her house upside down and inside out until she finds it.  And when she does, she throws a party, costing far more than the coin was worth.  The norms of this world might say put the coin in a secure place or invest it; but the Kingdom of God finds reason to rejoice and to celebrate!  God is not safe, but always good!

And then there is the story that comes immediately before this morning’s parable – the story of the lost son.  The younger of the two sons does not acquit himself well.  He demands his inheritance while his father is still very much alive, continues to make some selfish choices, offending nearly everyone and only comes to his senses when he realises that something must change if he is to survive.  It is out of this self-interest rather than a sense of sorrow and repentance that he returns home.  Still some way off, his father sees him and throwing dignity to the wind, runs towards him, embraces him and throws a party to celebrate the return of the son he presumed was dead.  The older brother, devout and faithful, didn’t want a bar of it but, his father says: “This son of mine that was dead is now alive, the one who was lost is found”. God’s Kingdom tips the understanding of this world upside down; the world would seek to punish but in God’s kingdom, the younger son discovers the amazing grace and forgiveness that have been waiting for him the whole time – God is not safe, but is always good and forgives even when we cannot.

 In this morning’s parable, the dishonest manager is in an equally bad situation and for the same reason – he has acted entirely selfishly, misappropriating company funds, without concern for how his actions will affect others. When his employer begins to work this out and threatens to fire him, the manager once more acts out of complete self interest and begins wheeling and dealing with his employer’s debtors, reduces his portion of their commission and cuts their interest rates.  And, one imagines, he does this so that he can call in some favours when he loses his job!  But his actions have transformed a terrible situation into one that not only benefits him but others also – and he has gone some way to building relationships with the vendors rather than simply collecting bills and commission.  We don’t know whether he actually holds on to his job; we are only told that his employer commends him for his shrewdness.  God is not safe, but is always good, full of surprises and turns our world upside down with his overflowing gift of amazing grace.

 According to Luke, the parable is addressed to disciples; this would probably have included those with whom Jesus was sharing meals – the tax collectors and sinners – those whom he had said would be welcomed into the Kingdom of heaven and who had chosen to follow him.  Here Jesus makes clear that their reception called from them a response and that they were to ‘make friends’ by right use right use of ‘dishonest wealth’, using it in the service of the poor.

This morning we come face to face with God who takes our norms, our expectations, and our preconceived ideas and turns them on their heads.  Jesus invited his hearers to see, to understand and know an outrageously generous God who lavishes that generosity and grace on each and every one of us.  And such generosity we are reminded calls forth a response from us – that we are equally generous – generous in love, generous in compassion, generous in forgiveness, generous in justice.

 In telling these remarkable stories, Jesus sets out to shock – to shock us out of our self-centred complacency, to rethink and re-envision what our world could become if we were to fully embrace the values of His Father’s Kingdom and live according to those values.

 We proclaim a God who is always ready to overturn our understandings and widen our imaginations, a God who will take risks for the building of his Kingdom, a God who is not safe, but good.

God insistently and consistently points towards the good, and the good does not always feel safe.  There is a comfort about staying safe, in the still waters of what we know; but still waters ultimately stagnate, and a stagnant pond or river ultimately dies.  Waters need to move in order that the oxygen of life can fuel them.

 Last week, David reminded us about the wonderful heritage that has been gifted to us, the ability of this community in past ages to inspire and to grow the Kingdom of God in this town.  But he also reminded us that even with this heritage and all that we have been in the past, we too could die if we are not willing to risk letting go of what feels safe and allow ourselves to embrace the shocking nature of God’s Kingdom and allow him to lead us in to places we never dreamed or imagined that we would go! But we do it, confident that God is always with us, welcoming children around his altar, loving us, forgiving us when we make mistakes and get it wrong, energising us and inspiring us, moving us ever onward and forward!

 Living and walking with God is not safe, but it is always good!  Amen

I have found my sheep that was lost (SsP&P)

Exodus 32:7-14, Luke 15:1-10

Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on September 11th at Ss Peter & Paul

It’s very good to be here this morning and I know many of you are relieved that at last you have a new Rector in place.

It is an honour – and rather humbling – to become the 53rd Rector of this parish.  In just three years’ time it will be the 800th anniversary of the appointment of the first Rector here in Kettering, something I hope we will all want to celebrate.

I want to thank you once again for your warm and generous welcome.  And for the way so many of you have stepped up and played your part in the church during the vacancy.

I’m grateful also to the Patron of this parish, James Sanders Watson, with us here this morning.

I’m especially grateful the selection process didn’t resemble one almost two hundred years ago in 1827, when the successful candidate just happened to be the Patron’s brother.

Right at the start of my ministry here in Kettering comes a gift in the shape of this morning’s Gospel reading.  A reading from the heart of Luke’s Gospel which gets to the very heart of what the gospel is about.

The author Luke takes a special interest in things that are lost and in Luke’s Gospel Jesus is especially concerned with things that are lost and with people who have lost things.

We use the word ‘lost’ to cover a range of experiences.  Yesterday I was doing some hospital visiting and lost my hospital parking ticket.  It was annoying and preoccupied me for around twenty minutes.  But it wasn’t life-changing.

But sometimes we lose things which are closely wrapped up with our sense of who we are, with our identity.  And then we ourselves become truly lost.  In extreme cases, people lose their memories.  We talk about people losing their minds.  But many of us will have had knocks in life which led to us losing our way for a while.   We lose a job.  Or a partner, a lover, a friend.  We lose someone through bereavement.

Luke’s Gospel is interested in these experiences of lostness because Luke’s Jesus is interested in them.

This kind of being lost is never good in itself.  And yet out of this lostness new things become possible.  Our true moments of glory come not at times of success, of welfare and plenty, but of lostness, hardship & uncertainty.  These are the moments of transformation.

The experience of being lost, then found, is at the very heart of the Christian experience.

Exactly 250 years ago last month a man stood in this very pulpit who wrote our best-known words about being lost, lines in the most recorded song in history.

‘I once was lost
but now am found’

When John Newton came to Kettering on 5 August 1766, it was 18 years after the religious conversion which began to change his life.  It would be another six years before he wrote ‘Amazing Grace’.

Right at the heart of Luke’s Gospel are three stories about being lost and losing things, following one after the other: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and a third parable we didn’t hear today, the parable of the lost son. The parable of the lost son may sound unfamiliar to you, and yet it is one of the greatest of all the parables, better known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  It is bizarre that it’s not known as the Parable of the Lost Son, because ‘being lost’ is so clearly the common thread running through all three stories; and because the parable ends with these words: ‘this brother of yours was lost and has been found.’

But lostness isn’t something we find just at the heart of Luke’s gospel.  It’s there also at the start and at the end.

In Luke Chapter 2 it’s Jesus himself – twelve years old – who is lost.  Mary and Joseph are travelling away from Jerusalem following the Feast of the Passover.  And then they realise Jesus is missing.  After three days they find him, back in the Jerusalem Temple, talking with the religious teachers.  Jesus says to his parents: ‘Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

Luke is a great storyteller and it’s hard to believe he wrote this story without having at the back of his mind another story, one which he tells towards the end of his gospel.

Because this is not the last time in Luke’s gospel we meet two people walking away from Jerusalem following the Passover Festival, distraught because they have lost Jesus. It’s not the last time they encounter Jesus again after three days, engaged in a discussion of the scriptures. It’s not the last time the two people interrupt their journey and head back to Jerusalem.

Luke tells these stories in such a way that when we read the story of the Road to Emmaus, at some level we’re reminded of the earlier story, of Joseph and Mary, out of their minds with worry because they’ve lost Jesus.

Many of us will have had times in our lives when we have lost Jesus. When we can’t quite work out how once we felt close to him, and then somehow he no longer seemed to be part of our lives in the same way. And we try to retrace our steps and work out how that happened, and how we can change things so that Jesus is once more part of our lives, so that God’s presence, rather than his absence, is something we once again experience.

When Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus again, he appears to be completely at home.  He says to them: ’Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

Which raises the question: ‘Who was really lost?’

It is we who are lost when we lose Jesus, when we lose sight of God, when we lose touch with the spiritual side of our character. I speak from experience, having spent fifteen years of my life away from Christian faith.  Like the people of Israel we heard about in our first reading, I spent many years wandering in a wilderness.  I often regret it and lament what I see as wasted years.  And yet, like the people of Israel, that time has shaped who I am and now shapes my ministry, especially with those on the edge of the church, those who find faith difficult.

Fortunately, as Luke’s Gospel makes clear, it is precisely at such moments of lostness that we can experience God in a new way.

When the lost son returns to his father, his father sees him when he is still far off and runs and puts his arms around him and kisses him. This is a picture of God, one of the best we have.

Once we find our way again, how is life different?  What is it that keeps us on track and stops us getting derailed?  A detailed map, perhaps, so we need never get lost again?

That’s not my experience.  There are Christians – there are indeed whole churches – who believe God provides such a detailed map.  In my experience, that’s rare.  Less a map, more a compass.  Indeed, less a compass, more a homing instinct. That feels more true to those moments in life when things do seem to go right, when we feel as if by God’s grace, we are living within God’s purposes.  It was such a homing instinct that took the boy Jesus to his true home – to his Father’s house.

I believe it was such a homing instinct which has brought me here to Kettering.

There is perhaps just one thing worse than being lost.  And that’s being lost and not realising it.

To be relying, for example, on a mental map which is no longer helpful because a place has changed.

Churches can get lost, not because they change but because the world around them changes.  It can happen to any church.  It could even happen here.

The way to stay true to ourselves when the world is changing is not simply to carry on as before.  The authentic way to be true to ourselves is to find creative ways of being the same person in very different circumstances.

And something similar is true for churches.  The world is changing.  Kettering is changing.  So the question for our churches is: how do we remain true to ourselves when around us we see change?  This parish’s distinguished history provides clues.  This year is the 100th anniversary of the creation of three new parishes in Kettering, the result of an imaginative and resourceful response by this church to the growing population.  It built three new churches, St Andrews, All Saints and St Mary’s and by 1916 these churches had become strong and resilient enough to have their own parishes.  This visionary act of generosity undoubtedly led to a growth in the Christian Church in Kettering.

Kettering is once again growing.  It’s unlikely that our response is going to be the same as 100 years ago.  And yet the need for vision, for imagination, for confidence in God and for generosity remains as strong as ever. 100 years ago this church knew that Christian life and ministry were an adventure.  Let’s join them and be true to our heritage.  And in doing so, find ourselves again in a new way.

I have found my sheep that was lost (SMAA)

Exodus 32:7-14, Luke 15:1-10

Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on 11th September 2016 at St Michael & All Angels.

Right at the start of my ministry here in Kettering comes a gift in the shape of this morning’s Gospel reading.  A reading from the heart of Luke’s Gospel which gets to the very heart of what the gospel is about.

The author Luke takes a special interest in things that are lost and in Luke’s Gospel Jesus is especially concerned with things that are lost and with people who have lost things.

We use the word ‘lost’ to cover a range of experiences.  Yesterday I was doing some hospital visiting and lost my hospital parking ticket.  It was annoying and preoccupied me for around twenty minutes.  But it wasn’t life-changing.

But sometimes we lose things which are closely wrapped up with our sense of who we are, with our identity.  And then we ourselves become truly lost.  In extreme cases, people lose their memories.  We talk about people losing their minds.  But many of us will have had knocks in life which led to us losing our way for a while.   We lose a job.  Or a partner, a lover, a friend.  We lose someone through bereavement.  Today we remember those who still feel loss, 15 years after the events of 11 September 2001.

Luke’s Gospel is interested in these experiences of lostness because Luke’s Jesus is interested in them.

This kind of being lost is never good in itself.  And yet out of this lostness new things become possible.  Our true moments of glory come not at times of success, of welfare and plenty, but of lostness, hardship & uncertainty.  These are the moments of transformation.

The experience of being lost, then found, is at the very heart of the Christian experience.

Right at the heart of Luke’s Gospel are three stories about being lost and losing things, following one after the other: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and a third parable we didn’t hear today, the parable of the lost son. The parable of the lost son may sound unfamiliar to you, and yet it is one of the greatest of all the parables, better known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  It is bizarre that it’s not known as the Parable of the Lost Son, because ‘being lost’ is so clearly the common thread running through all three stories; and because the parable ends with these words: ‘this brother of yours was lost and has been found.’

But lostness isn’t something we find just at the heart of Luke’s gospel.  It’s there also at the start and at the end.

In Luke Chapter 2 it’s Jesus himself – twelve years old – who is lost.  Mary and Joseph are travelling away from Jerusalem following the Feast of the Passover.  And then they realise Jesus is missing.  After three days they find him, back in the Jerusalem Temple, talking with the religious teachers.  Jesus says to his parents: ‘Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

Luke is a great storyteller and it’s hard to believe he wrote this story without having at the back of his mind another story, one which he tells towards the end of his gospel.

Because this is not the last time in Luke’s gospel we meet two people walking away from Jerusalem following the Passover Festival, distraught because they have lost Jesus. It’s not the last time they encounter Jesus again after three days, engaged in a discussion of the scriptures. It’s not the last time the two people interrupt their journey and head back to Jerusalem.

Luke tells these stories in such a way that when we read the story of the Road to Emmaus, at some level we’re reminded of the earlier story, of Joseph and Mary, out of their minds with worry because they’ve lost Jesus.

Many of us will have had times in our lives when we have lost Jesus. When we can’t quite work out how once we felt close to him, and then somehow he no longer seemed to be part of our lives in the same way. And we try to retrace our steps and work out how that happened, and how we can change things so that Jesus is once more part of our lives, so that God’s presence, rather than his absence, is something we once again experience.

When Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus again, he appears to be completely at home.  He says to them: ’Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

Which raises the question: ‘Who was really lost?’

It is we who are lost when we lose Jesus, when we lose sight of God, when we lose touch with the spiritual side of our character. I speak from experience, having spent fifteen years of my life away from Christian faith.  Like the people of Israel we heard about in our first reading, I spent many years wandering in a wilderness.  I often regret it and lament what I see as wasted years.  And yet, like the people of Israel, that time has shaped who I am and now shapes my ministry, especially with those on the edge of the church, those who find faith difficult.

Fortunately, as Luke’s Gospel makes clear, it is precisely at such moments of lostness that we can experience God in a new way.

When the lost son returns to his father, his father sees him when he is still far off and runs and puts his arms around him and kisses him. This is a picture of God, one of the best we have.

Once we find our way again, how is life different?  What is it that keeps us on track and stops us getting derailed?  A detailed map, perhaps, so we need never get lost again?

That’s not my experience.  There are Christians – there are indeed whole churches – who believe God provides such a detailed map.  In my experience, that’s rare.  Less a map, more a compass.  Indeed, less a compass, more a homing instinct. That feels more true to those moments in life when things do seem to go right, when we feel as if by God’s grace, we are living within God’s purposes.  It was such a homing instinct that took the boy Jesus to his true home – to his Father’s house.

I believe it was such a homing instinct which has brought me here to Kettering.

Does our gospel reading today provide any clues about the future of this church, of St Michael and All Angels, as we look ahead?

My impression is that St Michael’s is at a crucial moment in its history.  The energy and life here which I’ve already sensed needs to find a direction.  I see my main role here as simply enabling you to find your way forward.  I want to be a catalyst, an enabler, a facilitator, so that each of you can discover your own ministry and vocation: so that together you can flourish in faith.

Many of us are here today because we’ve known what it means to be lost.  Here is Kettering there is no shortage of people who feel lost, even if they don’t admit it.  They are struggling, hurt, confused.  What does the owner of the sheep do in our story?  For a while he leaves the warmth and security of the flock, looks out into the wider world, finds the lost sheep and brings it home.

As St Michael’s grows and flourishes – as I’m sure it will – never forget what it is that brings us together.  It is that we are people who know what it means to be lost.  That is what the people in neighbouring streets most need.  They need to see a community of people who, like them, know what it’s like to feel lost and yet who have been found.

And as you grow and flourish, have as your model the owner of the sheep in our story, who turns his face outwards to search for the lost one.  St Michael’s is here for a reason, for a purpose.  And part of that purpose is nothing less than the transformation of this corner of Kettering so that the lost can be found and so that the values of God’s kingdom – healing, reconciliation, justice – can become visible in our streets, signs of the presence of the kingdom of God.

The cost of being a disciple

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 4th September 2016

Luke 14:25-33

 The first few words in this morning’s Gospel stopped me in my tracks, because they seem to fly in the face of what I thought I understood about what it means to be a follower of Christ – that I should love God with all my heart, mind and strength and love my neighbour as myself.

 But this morning I hear Jesus telling the crowd listening to him that ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and life itself cannot be my disciple.’

What is going on!!

Well, we need to take ourselves back insofar as we can to the Graeco-Roman world of the first century, when Luke would have been writing.  For in the culture and understanding of that time, the idea of hating someone meant something quite different to our understanding today.  The people hearing Jesus speaking would have understood the word ‘hate’ to have meant something akin to ‘love less than’ rather than the much stronger feelings attached to the word today.

What Jesus is saying to his listeners is that discipleship makes incredible demands of each of us – and there may be times when we are faced with painfully difficult and challenging decisions – whether to follow where God is calling, or to stay with our old life where we feel safe and secure.  We do well to reflect on this today as we prepare to welcome David as our new Parish Priest later this afternoon.  For God has clearly led David here to move us on, to challenge us, shake us up and to help us grow.  But the choice is ours – to follow where God is leading, rejoicing in the opportunity to grow together and to flourish, or to stay with what we know and where we feel safe, but risk stagnating.

 Jesus further illustrated the cost of discipleship with the story about a man considering building a watchtower: ‘For which of you’, he says, ‘intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?’

Our baptismally vows call us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, but the choices before us may not always be easy.  I glimpsed something of this some 20 years ago now when I was very happy in my home town in Suffolk where I had hitherto spent most of my life, enjoying enormously the ministry to which God had called me.  But God was beginning to kick me up the backside so to speak, and it was becoming clear that he wanted me to move on.  I ignored that prompting for some time, but God is persistent and ultimately I had to respond and actively begin to discern where God was calling me to go.  And so it was that I came to Kettering as part of the discernment process and once more God made it crystal clear that this is where he wanted me to be.  But the choice was mine – whether to follow where God was clearly leading, or stay where I felt safe and secure amidst my family and friends.  Well you all know what my answer was for here I am but the decision to leave behind family and friends was not an easy one and it was costly, but through it God has richly blessed me!  And if I’m totally honest, I’m not sure that I had fully thought through the cost.

But before we are tempted to lose heart, the Gospels also remind us that not all disciples joined Jesus on the road. In fact, he positively encourages at least one to stay at home and rather tell of all he has discovered about Jesus to the people of his village.  And even those who did become fellow travellers were not perfect:  they failed to see the obvious; they squabbled over status and one of them denied him.   But Jesus does not set people up to fail and scripture teaches us that there are many ways to be a disciple.  All that God asks is that we try – that we keep on trying and never give up.

 Jesus is telling that large crowd that followed him and every one of us here that if they and we wish to be his followers, then we will experience the joy of his presence but may also be faced with isolation, misunderstanding, challenges and pain; it will not be an easy ride and we may find ourselves having to make some very difficult choices if we are to be taken seriously.

The exceptional life of discipleship to which we are all called challenges us to think about our attitudes and responses as individuals and communities towards all those amongst whom we live – those who are born in this country, and those who are here following migration.  The shocking news of the murder of the Polish gentleman earlier this week in Harlow – murdered it would seem because he was not born in this country – should make each of us question the values that underpin our common national life and identity.  We are called to work for a just and fair society, a world that affirms the dignity of every man, woman and child who are all, whether we like it or not, children of the one Heavenly Father who rejoiced to create us and in whose image we are all created.  This is the outward expression of our faith which gives us credibility.

We cannot take up the cross without deepening our faith and trust in the God who calls us, increasing our love for Him and all God’s children, and putting aside our own demands.  But when, by God’s grace, we are enabled to do that, our eyes are opened, our minds are broadened, and our very lives are transformed by the richness of God’s love and grace – a power that enables us to achieve what we never thought possible, a power that enables us to become more truly the people God created us to be, a power that will ultimately enable all his children to live a life of dignity in peace – to the glory of His Name. Amen

We have a banquet to offer all people

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 28th August 2016

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

‘When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.  And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you….’

As we gather here this morning to worship God, we sing, we pray, and we share the gift of a simple meal.  And we listen – to each other and to God speaking to us through all these things and through the words of scripture.  And as we do all of this, we are reminded of a profound and utterly amazing truth – that God loves each and every one of us – not just those of us here, but all people everywhere across our world- we are loved no matter who we are, no matter our age or circumstances, no matter our faith or beliefs.  God simply and gloriously loves!  He loved us into being, and he continues to love us into the fullness of life, not because of what we are, or what we do, what we have done or will do in the future, but simply because we are! – the wonderful, extraordinary, beautiful, fallible children of God.  God’s love has no strings attached – He loves us, not because we are loveable, but we are loveable precisely because God loves us. That love will never falter – it is infinite and everlasting.

And because we are loved, we are called to love.

Yet so often, we seem to find it so hard to grasp that reality; it’s a real struggle for some people to believe and comprehend that they are loved; and I would dare to suggest that it is a constant struggle for most of us to love unconditionally, a struggle made harder by our preoccupation with issues of power and status. Over time, that preoccupation, fed by our inability to love with no strings attached, has had and continues to have devastating consequences resulting in pain, hardship and injustice.  Being a person of faith does not exempt us from this struggle.  We only have to look at the tensions currently within the Anglican Communion over issues of sexuality and same-sex marriage to be reminded of that.

Jesus, and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, confronts each of us head on this morning.

St. Luke tells us that Jesus has been invited for a meal – a banquet –  at the home of a leader of the Pharisees.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaching about banquets points to the life of God’s Kingdom; they celebrate the flourishing of people living in relationship with a generous God and with one another.  On this occasions, you sense that something else is also going on here for Luke tell us that ‘they were watching him closely’.  But Jesus has also been watching others who had also been invited, and he noted how they were jostling for position, choosing for themselves the places of honour.

In somebody else’s home, and surrounded by hostile eyes, Jesus make no attempt to curry favour with his host or the crowd, and turns the spotlight on his watchers.  They, not him, become the spectacle.

Jesus tells two stories about dinner-parties, cutting straight to the heart of the obsession of the Pharisees and other community leaders with hierarchy, position and judgements about others worth and value.

Frequently in the Gospels we see people coming to Jesus with the same kind of questions about hierarchy and position; about how to measure and order their world and find the best place for themselves.  Jesus simply refuses to answer in those terms, and tries to get the people to work with a completely different set of assumptions.

The guest, he says, must remember that it is not his dinner-party and he cannot decide for himself who should sit where.  The party is given by someone else and the host alone has the right to determine the seating arrangements.

Further more, Jesus seems to be suggesting to his distinguished audience that they have no idea at all of the criteria that God uses to send out his invitations.  No amount of working our way up the hierarchical ladder is going to guarantee admission, and if you do get invited, you may find yourself in some unexpected company!

The writer to the Hebrews picks up the same thread.  ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.  Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.’

We don’t do that very well, it seems for I was reminded earlier this month that we are failing to honour commitments under the Dublin regulations to bring unaccompanied refugee children into this country and reunite them with their families.  To date, only 40 children and teenagers have been allowed in to Britain with a further 110 in Calais identified as being eligible – but no action has been taken in their cases.  Another 200 children in the camps in Calais are eligible for sanctuary in Britain under the Lord Alfred Dubs amendment to bring child refugees to the UK, formerly a child refugee himself.   Ministers said that several thousand were expected to come to Britain – so far there have been just 20.  We are not, it seems, doing very well in showing hospitality to strangers and sharing our banquet with others – and it brings shame on us all!

Time and again, Jesus challenges those who believe that the way to God can be mapped out according to human rules and values, but the words of Luke and the Letter to the Hebrews tell us that nothing could be further from the truth; the ways of God are gloriously contrary to the ways of the world.

Dave Smith is an inspiration.  He is the founder of two Manchester based Christian charities – The Mustard Tree which works with the homeless and marginalised, and the Boaz Trust, which helps destitute, refused asylum-seekers and refugees by providing accommodation and support and campaigning for a more just asylum system.  Those who work for the charity experience on occasions the joy of seeing clients who have received ‘Leave to Remain in the UK’ notices and Dave Smith wrote the following after one such experience:

The Letter

Today the letter came.

Today you came in to the office,

with the letter, smiling,

no longer the same.

I have seen you smile before:

not often, in the last six years of waiting,

and always wistfully,

always tinged with sadness,

always hiding the hurt beneath.

But today

because of the letter

your smile was wide,

your hug intense

your brow unfurrowed,

your frown unfurled,

your worry-lines ironed out,

you eyes alive with light –

all because of the letter.

If only they understood

what the letter means to you,

and thousands like you.

If only they understood

why you were willing to suspend your life

indefinitely

until the letter came.

I wish I could frame your smile,

bottle your new, light heart,

capture in print your unburdened soul,

and send them a copy.

Maybe then they would understand

that you are not, and never were

a number to be counted

a statistic to be quoted

an inconvenience to be ignored,

but a living being

a daughter

a mother

a sister

a friend

and most of all,

a child of God.

And today,

as you smiled your freedom smile

I could see, almost for the first time

the image of your creator

that the letter had

at last

released.

In our churches, through the grace of God, we have a banquet to offer all people, and especially people in need.  It isn’t just a banquet of worship and prayer, but also of space and sanctuary, food, friendship and hospitality.   God has no seating plan for his extraordinary guest list.  This morning Jesus challenges us – do we do all that we can to offer hospitality, inviting, encouraging people to share in this banquet?  And if not, what are we going to do about it!  Amen.